Thornton gives booze the boot as Doncaster aim to trip up the Gunners

As his side prepare to face Arsenal in the Carling Cup, Doncaster's influential midfield man tells Jon Culley how a move to Belle Vue saved his career... and perhaps more
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The Independent Online

Even as he took his first steps in the English game, it seemed to be Sean Thornton's football destiny to be rubbing shoulders with opponents of Arsenal's calibre yet himself taking centre stage.

In that respect, tonight's Carling Cup quarter-final against Arsène Wenger's team is the kind of occasion his career path appeared to hold in store for him.

The surprise, perhaps, is that Thornton, not long ago heralded as a teenager with the Premiership potentially at his feet, will be showcasing his talents in the colours of Doncaster Rovers, the League One minnows whose ousting from the competition of Manchester City and Aston Villa in earlier rounds has been one of the stories of the season. Quite how unlikely an alliance this is might be gauged from where club and player stood on Sunday, 11 May 2003, only two-and-a-half years ago. On that day, Doncaster celebrated beating Dagenham and Redbridge in a play-off to win promotion from the Conference and Thornton completed his debut season for Sunderland.

The Black Cats - beaten 4-0, coincidentally, by Arsenal on that day - were relegated but 19-year-old Thornton was being hailed as their player of the season only four months after his first appearance.

The two have moved in different directions since. For Doncaster, it has been up and up: the League Two title at the first attempt and real prospects of promotion to the Championship this season, just in time for the move from Belle Vue, where a capacity 10,500 will cram its pitch-hugging terraces tonight, to a new 16,000-capacity, £32m stadium next summer.

Thornton, on the other hand, has taken a path he would sooner not dwell upon. Gaining as much repute for a colourful social life as for his peroxide blond hair and striking white boots, he could not secure a place even in a relegated Sunderland side, his relationship with manager Mick McCarthy deteriorating to the point, last spring, of being transfer-listed.

That culminated in a £175,000 move to Doncaster in the summer, a record deal for the South Yorkshire club but hard not to interpret as a comedown for Thornton.

Yet as he prepares to return to the big stage - in terms of occasion if not venue - the former Irish Under-21 international believes it might be the move that saved his career ... and perhaps a little more.

Turning a pre-match media call into an impromptu confessional, the 22-year-old midfielder admitted that the jolt of dropping from the Premiership to League One had made him realise that his conduct off the field, much of it fuelled by heavy drinking, had been threatening to destroy his fledgling career.

It is a lifestyle he says he has now put behind him - and will not be tempted back to even if Doncaster beat Arsenal and he is man of the match.

"I never got into trouble, never got into fights but like most footballers I liked a drink on a Saturday night," he said. "But I've knocked that on the head. I haven't had a drink for six weeks.

"You don't realise the effect it has on you. I used to feel that on the field I was as fit as the guy next to me but if you are not sleeping right and not eating right, it takes it toll.

"And I was fed up because every time I went out even with other lads I was always the one who was seen, perhaps because of the blond hair, and I was sick of going in the manager's office and having to explain.

"In Sunderland it was a very intense atmosphere and it always seemed to be me that people spotted. I could tell you hundreds of stories about things I was supposed to have done.

"You want to get away from that and move on. It is the same here to an extent but I don't want to be in those places any more. I do go out but I will just stay a couple of hours and then leave. I haven't checked into a clinic but I have spoken to a counsellor. I felt I was in danger of wasting my talent and I want to give myself every chance of getting back to the top level."

He even gave away his man of the match champagne after Rovers' stunning 3-0 win over Aston Villa in the last round. "That was a big test for me," he said. "All the lads were going out. I asked myself, can I handle that [without a drink[? The hotel we went to was jumping, everybody was buzzing, and I didn't touch a drop.

"I just had orange juice. It was great to feel I had the willpower. I gave the champagne to my wife's mother." As a bonus, he has lost a stone in weight, another irony given that arguments over his fitness clouded his relationship with McCarthy. "At the time I didn't feel it was an issue because it was not like I was putting in bad performance after bad performance but with hindsight I probably should have got it off then," he said.

That is because part of him hankers after a return to the Stadium of Light. "Sunderland is in my heart and if the opportunity arose I would love to go back," he said. In the meantime, playing in the Championship with Doncaster would do. "That's where we all want to be." It is a sentiment shared by his manager, Dave Penney, although he would not be averse to the distraction of a cup semi-final and does not think it an impossible prospect.

"We surprised a lot of people with how well we played against Villa," he said. "Whoever Arsenal put out it will be a good side but coming here might be a bit of an eye opener for them.

"We like to get the ball down and pass it and hopefully Arsenal will be the kind of side to let us do so."